Computer Science vs. Cyber Security Master’s Degrees [What’s the Difference?]

March 1, 2021

All cyber security professionals are computer scientists, but not all computer scientists work in cyber security.

Students in both degree tracks need excellent problem-solving skills and fluency in multiple programming languages. Both programs lead to high-paying jobs in a market where talent is scarce. Organizations struggle to fill computer science roles, and those who find work are frequently unprepared to tackle even basic security risks, according to the Harvard Business Review.

There are distinctions as well. For example, cyber security is just one computer science specialization—meaning it can be offered as a concentration in Master of Science in Computer Science programs, as well as an individual degree.

Both tracks are excellent, but which should you pick? Those who like investigating data breaches, identifying malware, and improving network security usually choose cyber security. In contrast, those who want to develop software or maintain databases pursue a general computer science degree or a different specialization. But, because these two paths are so interconnected, you don’t necessarily need to pick one.

Computer science vs. cyber security: curriculum

Similar degrees can have different focuses, and looking at degree titles can be revealing. For instance, within the cyber security designation, you can earn a Master of Science in:

  • Applied Information Technology with a cyber security concentration
  • Computer Information Systems & Cyber Security
  • Computer Science with a cyber security concentration
  • Cyber Security Engineering

Overview of a typical master’s in computer science curriculum

Computer science curricula can vary widely between schools, but there is lots of common ground—including among online programs. A typical master’s in computer science curriculum covers:

  • Cloud computing
  • Enterprise software design
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Mobile systems and applications
  • Software development
  • Web programming

Programs that accept non-computer scientists also cover such bachelor’s-degree-level subjects as basic computer programming and data analysis. Alternatively, students may self-study equivalent undergraduate coursework, or complete a bridge program.

Overview of a typical master’s in cyber security curriculum

Computer science programs offer cyber security classes, but obviously, a master’s in cyber security goes deeper. Typical master’s in cyber security degree coursework includes:

  • Algorithm analysis
  • Biometrics
  • Cryptography
  • Cyber security architecture
  • Digital forensics/computer forensics
  • Information security strategy and policy

Additionally, while there are bachelor’s degrees in cyber security, applicants commonly have a general computer science background.

Computer science vs. cyber security: specializations

Cyber security is far from the only computer science specialization. Top specializations and schools that offer them include:

Artificial intelligence

This specialization prioritizes machine learning and other AI strategies. Southern Methodist University offers an AI specialization as part of its online computer science master’s.

Computer engineering

Computer engineering is a distinct discipline from computer science, though it shares common traits. Computer engineers focus more (though not entirely) on hardware than software.

Cyber security

Like most specializations, cyber security can be offered as a separate degree, or as part of a computer science program.

Data communications

This specialization orients students to the relationship between people and technology; you’ll learn data science as well as communication skills.

Distributed systems

Distributed systems (aka distributed computing) is essentially an attempt to connect the disparate areas of a system. It has numerous practical and theoretical applications, and is usually offered as a research field.

Graphics and visualization

A graphics and visualization track covers subjects like:

  • Biomedical visualization
  • Computer animation
  • Geometric modeling
  • GPU programming
  • Isogeometric analysis
  • Scientific visualization
  • Terrain modeling and rendering
  • Visual perception and spatial cognition

Mobile application development

Most mobile app developers are specialists because they focus on making software work across different platforms. You may not need a degree to pursue mobile app development.

Network architecture

Computer network architects are responsible for creating and maintaining entire networks—other positions in the field take on specialized roles. It’s possible to pursue network architecture with a traditional computer science degree.

Operating systems

Operating systems education is a common part of cyber security coursework. There are jobs available for protecting, managing, and designing operating systems.

Software engineering

Traditional CS programs can prepare students for software engineering careers, but some schools have dedicated master’s programs. Students take software engineering, data analysis, and artificial intelligence courses.

Computer science vs. cyber security: job outlook

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the computer and information technology field is expected to grow by 11 percent from 2019 to 2029—more than triple the rate for the job market as a whole. This figure encompasses all computer science careers, including cyber security. Like the others in this section, this number is a good starting point, but individual jobs still grow at different rates.

Computer science job outlook

The BLS expects computer and information research scientist employment to grow by 15 percent from 2019 to 2029.

Cyber security job outlook

The BLS projects information security analyst employment to grow by a staggering 31 percent from 2019 to 2029.

Computer science vs. cyber security: career paths and earning potential

Examining job outlook numbers is an excellent way to identify trends, but looking at career paths provides a more detailed picture. These are some top jobs you can get with a master’s degree.

PayScale says the average salary for someone with a master’s in computer science is $102,637. The best jobs pay considerably more. Likewise, the average salary for someone with a master’s in cyber security is nearly $87,000—and, again, top positions pay more.

Career paths

Career paths aren’t rigid in computer science. Just because a degree is popular, it’s not the only relevant one. A strong business background may be enough for specific computer science jobs—others may not require a graduate degree at all.

The best jobs you can earn with a master’s in cyber security or computer science, and their average annual income, include:

  • Chief information security officer ($165,000): You can perform this job with either degree or even a Master of Business Administration (MBA).
  • Cloud engineer ($91,000): Cloud engineers usually have a master’s in computer science if they have a graduate degree.
  • Computer information systems manager ($146,000): Cyber security and computer information systems degrees prepare you for this career.
  • Computer network architect ($113,000): Cyber security and computer science degree-holders both make good network architects.
  • Cybercrime analyst/investigator ($74,000): Both degrees can prepare you for this career, though a master’s in cyber security is likely preferred. Salaries can go much higher for this career, depending on where you work.
  • Cyber security analyst ($77,000): This career may not require a master’s degree.
  • Cyber security architect ($122,000): This career may not require a master’s degree.
  • Cyber security director ($122,000): Unsurprisingly, a master’s of cyber security works best here.
  • Cyber security engineer ($97,000): This career may not require a master’s degree, though certifications are helpful.
  • Chief technology officer ($162,000/): Several degrees can prepare you for this career, including a PhD or MBA.
  • Information security analyst ($100,000)
  • Information technology director ($121,000): A computer science degree, or master’s in information technology, should serve well.
  • Principal software engineer ($139,000): A master’s in computer science works best here.
  • Senior engineering manager ($148,000): A master’s in computer science, or master’s in software engineering,prepares you for this career.
  • Senior solutions architect ($136,000)
  • Software developer ($72,000): While a computer science master’s degree can help you earn more, you may not need one.
  • Software engineering director ($150,000): A computer science degree is a top option for software engineering directors.
  • Software engineering manager ($140,000): A master’s in computer science works best here.
  • Vice president of engineering ($175,000): You might need an MBA or master’s of engineering management degree for this position.

Master’s in computer science vs. master’s in cyber security: which is for you?

Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with either degree, assuming you have technical skills and enjoy working with computers.

A master’s in computer science is worth it on the condition that you have the time and resources to dedicate to a program—this rule applies to graduate programs in any discipline. While master’s in computer science programs exist for professionals at every level, those who use their degrees to advance or develop specific expertise often benefit the most. Even though professionals with a master’s in cyber security earn less, on average, than their computer science counterparts, they usually have a more focused skill set.

Bottom line? You can’t go wrong with either degree.

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